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Scottish Enterprise urged to rule out ‘damaging’ deep sea mining

Joe Lo | The Ferret  July 15, 2019

Environmental campaigners have called on the Scottish Government’s economic development agency not to spend taxpayers’ money subsidising a controversial new form of underwater mining.

A report commissioned by Scottish Enterprise echoed concerns that deep sea mining could lead to “the potential extinction of unique species” – but the agency has refused to rule out investing in the industry.

Deep sea mining envisages machines sucking up the seabed so that minerals like cobalt and manganese can be extracted for use in products such as mobile phones, wind turbines and batteries.

Although no mining has begun yet, mining sites have been proposed in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and near Peru and Japan.

The UK government, in collaboration with US arms company Lockheed Martin, has a license to mine an area larger than England off the west coast of Mexico.

An April 2017 report into deep sea mining commissioned by Scottish Enterprise was made public in July after a freedom of information request by Greenpeace’s Unearthed website.

The report was written by the research arm of Subsea UK which describes itself  “the champion” of the UK under-sea industry. “The environmental impacts of deep sea mining are not fully understood,” cautioned the report.

“The activities involved in subsea mining could have detrimental impacts on localised populations as well as an impact on world oceans through the potential extinction of unique species that form the first rung of the food chain.”

Scottish Enterprise said that it regularly undertook research into markets to understand their potential for Scotland’s businesses. “This report was commissioned to highlight the market potential in a range of sectors such as aquaculture and marine renewables, that Scotland’s subsea capability could be appropriate for in future market activity,” David Rennie, the agency’s head of oil and gas, told Unearthed.

“As yet we have not made any decisions, or progressed any activity, on how we might develop seabed mining. Other sectors such as marine renewables and aquaculture are likely to offer more immediate opportunities and any significant developments in seabed mining are likely to be some years off.”

But Friends of the Earth Scotland called for funding to be blocked now. “Scottish Enterprise should immediately rule out any support for deep sea mining,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“It is absurd to even be considering putting public money into such a damaging activity at a time when the life in our oceans is already under so much threat from climate change, over fishing, plastic pollution and oil extraction.”

Greenpeace UK urged politicians to be held to account for planning to spend taxpayers’ money on deep sea mining. “Scottish Enterprise is well aware of the potential environmental risks and there needs to be much more of a public conversation about whether citizens, including avid Blue Planet fans, are prepared to permit the potential extinction of species and risking making climate change worse,” said the group’s oceans campaigner, Louisa Casson.

She authored a Greenpeace report in 2019 warning that deep sea mining could make climate change worse by releasing carbon stored in sediments or by disrupting process which help scavenge carbon and deliver it to those sediments. Marine life naturally absorbs carbon, carrying some of it to the seafloor when they die.

That we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic. David Attenborough, broadcaster

Wildlife broadcaster, David Attenborough, has pointed out that the deep sea is where life began. “That we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic,” he told the BBC. “I mean, that humanity should just plough on with no regard for the consequences, because they don’t know what they are.”

The UK parliament’s cross-party environmental audit committee has warned that deep sea mining would have “catastrophic impacts on the seafloor site and its inhabitants”. In a report, MPs called on the UK government not to use its deep sea mining licenses and to pressure other countries and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) not to issue any more licenses.

The committee also criticised regulation of the industry.”We are concerned that the ISA, the licensing body for seabed exploration, also stands to benefit from revenues, which is a clear conflict of interest,” they said.

A Scottish Enterprise spokesperson told The Ferret: “Developments in seabed mining are closely controlled and regulated by the International Seabed Authority and the industry is very much in its infancy. Should any project be brought forward in the future it would be subject to rigorous economic and environmental due diligence.”

The Scottish Government said it supports “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas, balancing sustainable development with environmental protection”.

A government spokesperson added: “Any deep sea mining would be subject to regulatory controls and thorough assessment, including conducting an environmental appraisal.‎”

Three companies mentioned in the Scottish Enterprise report as potential recipients of support are Royal IHC, 2H Offshore and Soil Machine Dynamics. They all design machinery which could be used in deep sea mining and are all ultimately foreign-owned.

Royal IHC is majority-owned by the wealthy Dutch de Bruin family. 2H Offshore is ultimately owned by two US billionaires close to Donald Trump, Henry Kravis and George Roberts. Soil Machine Dynamics is ultimately majority-owned by the Chinese government.

When asked if it subsidises foreign owned companies, Scottish Enterprise said it works with “both indigenous and international companies”. On investing in companies owned by the Chinese state, a spokesperson stressed that the agency carried out “rigorous due diligence”.

Government wildlife and environment agencies all declined to comment, including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s chief scientist, Christine Maggs.

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Deep-sea mining risks ‘irreversible’ harm, warns Greenpeace

A subsea mining machine under construction © Reuters

Campaign group intervenes over UK exploration licences for Lockheed Martin

Henry Sanderson| Financial Times | 3 July 2019

Deep-sea mining risks “severe and potentially irreversible” environmental harm and the UK should prioritise protecting the ocean rather than extracting minerals from it, Greenpeace, the campaigning group, said.

The government has awarded deep-sea exploration licences to a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, which could lead to deep-sea mining despite Westminster being aware of the environmental risks, said Greenpeace.

David Cameron promised as prime minister in 2013 that deep-sea mining would generate £40bn for the UK economy over the next 30 years. But Greenpeace said it is unclear what this figure includes.

It pointed out that in 2017 the government’s deep-sea mining working group was shown a report by the National Subsea Research Initiative, a research body, warning of the environmental impact on the seabed.

“The activities involved in subsea mining could have detrimental impacts on localised populations as well as an impact on world oceans through the potential extinction of unique species which form the first rung of the food chain,” said the report, which was commissioned by Scottish Enterprise and seen by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information request.

The UN-backed International Seabed Authority, which regulates all mineral activities in international waters, has given countries, including the UK, 29 licences to explore the oceans, covering an area of 1.3m sq km, or five times the surface area of Britain. But mining cannot begin until regulations, currently being negotiated, are agreed. The ISA expects to have finished them by July 2020.

The UK government in 2013 granted Seabed Resources, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, the rights to explore 133,000 sq km of the ocean it had received from the ISA. Seabed Resources said it was waiting for the regulations to be approved before assessing the viability of mining at the sites.

Daniel Jones, a principal researcher at the National Oceanography Center, said scientists still do not know enough about life in the deep sea compared to life on land.

“We are finding out a lot more but we can’t answer how organisms will respond to disturbance from deep-sea mining without doing experimentation on the sea floor,” he said. “We are missing quite important information.”

A spokesman for the UK government said: “The UK continues to press for the highest international environmental standards, including on deep-sea mineral extraction. We have sponsored two exploration licences, which allows scientific marine research to fully understand the effects of deep-sea mining. We will not issue a single exploitation licence without a full assessment of the environmental impact.”

Deep-sea mining has had a chequered history. The first company to try to mine the deep sea, Nautilus Minerals, was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange in March after financial difficulties. The company had planned to mine around Papua New Guinea.

But last month Deep Green, a deep-sea mining start-up, said it had raised the bulk of the $150m it needed to press ahead with plans to collect mineral-rich nodules from the floor of the Pacific for metals such nickel and cobalt used in electric-car batteries. The company is backed by miner Glencore as well as shipping giant Maersk.

DeepGreen said “it is built with a deep appreciation and respect for ocean health and the earth’s environment”.

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Deep sea mining decisions: Approaching the point of no return

Sulfide chimneys coated with iron-based microbial mat at Urashima Vent. Deep sea hydrothermal vents like these are targeted for mining. Picture: NOAA / Flickr

Sebastian Losada and Pierre Terras* | The Vanuatu Independent |  March 28, 2018

OVER the last two weeks, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has been in discussions in Jamaica. Its mission – to work towards the finalisation of exploitation regulations, a so-called mining code that will allow commercial deep sea mining operations to begin all around the world.

The coming two years are critical in the opening – or not – of this unnecessary new frontier of resource exploitation.  The deep sea covers around fifty per cent of the Earth’s oceans and a great share of that is in international waters. Hidden under thousands of metres of water, the vast majority of it hasn’t been explored, meaning deep seabed mining could wipe out species and ecosystems before we even know them.

The ISA regulates the sea floor outside nations’ jurisdiction. It has to decide what the rules are: how much money will go to developing countries and their communities, what kind of environmental controls there will be. And, right now, decisions that could impact the earth’s seabed forever are being made in Jamaica; ushered through under pressure from industry and mining advocates with a decided lack of transparency.

A rocky outcropping with a prowfish skate corals and seastars as viewed by a manned deep submersible at approximately 1000′ deep in the Bering Sea. Picture: Greenpeace / John Hocevar

Advocates of ocean exploitation, like US giant military company Lockheed Martin, argue that we need deep sea mining in order to meet ‘the growing global demand for precious metals’ and to support ‘economic growth’.

They also claim that deep sea mining is necessary to satisfy our endless thirst for technological and electronic innovation, conveniently ignoring many aspects of the problem.

“Are we going to continue to develop huge mines that destroy villages, alter rivers, pollute water courses, take thousands of years to restore, remove whole mountains? You don’t have any of that with deep seabed mining,” said ISA Secretary General, Michael Lodge, recently.

While it’s true that mining for essential and finite raw materials often endangers workers and leaves the Earth irreversibly scarred, the solution is not – and cannot be – to translate these mining impacts to other ecosystems that provide crucial services to humanity and our climate.  Doing so would not only result in potentially irreversible biodiversity losses, but would also send a completely wrong signal: that we do not need to improve efficiency and reduce resource use because there is plenty down there.

Why is it that the IT sector, and its current leaders such as Samsung and Apple, can show the ingenuity to develop technologies that allow us to do things we could only have dreamed of a decade ago, but do not put such ingenuity to the service of a truly sustainable economy within the boundaries of the planet?

Instead, in the race to gain market share, IT companies increasingly change the design of their products in a way that accelerates the replacement cycle, making them difficult to service, upgrade or repair and shortening their useful life.

Greenpeace protests outside the Palau de Congresos de Cataluña (Catalunya Palace of Congress) during the presentation of Samsung ahead of the Mobile World Congress to ask Samsung for a compromise to recycle the 4,2 million of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices that were defective.

Mining advocates also argue that we need the minerals to meet increased demand from the growth of renewable energy technologies and the electrification of transport.

But there is no evidence that a transition towards renewable energy necessitates mining in the deep ocean. On the contrary; a recent report by the the Institute for Sustainable Futures found that:

“Even with the projected very high demand growth rates under the most ambitious energy scenarios, the projected increase in cumulative demand – all within the range of known terrestrial resources – does not require deep-sea mining activity.”

Different types of seabed mining involve different extraction methods and technologies, but whatever the approach severe impacts can be expected. Sediment plumes, the potential release of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, increased temperature and noise all threaten the deep sea’s precious and as yet untouched environment.

Researchers recently concluded that most mining-induced loss of biodiversity in the deep sea is likely to last forever on human timescales, given the very slow natural rates of recovery in affected ecosystems.

A dense field of whip coral (Viminella flagellum) found at 250 -300 meters in the Azores captured with the use of a specialised underwater camera. Picture: Greenpeace / Gavin Newman

Yet the ISA has recently rejected the establishment of an environmental committee to better include environmental considerations in its functioning, and key environmental information is not public. It’s Legal and Technical Commission meets mostly behind closed doors, and its composition is such that biological and ecological considerations are underrepresented.

Despite all the arguments against this unnecessary pillaging of planet’s seabed, so far the ISA has approved 28 exploration contracts in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans – covering more than 1.4 million square kilometers, roughly four times the size of Germany – to companies like Lockheed Martin.

And in the meantime, the first commercial test case for the deep seabed mining industry is already planned to take place in the waters of Papua New Guinea. Canadian company Nautilus Minerals plans to extract mineral-rich sulfides, containing copper, zinc and gold, at depths between 1,500 and 2,000m. The mining operation, known as the Solwara project, is scheduled to begin early in 2019.

A strong alliance of NGOs made of over 20 communities in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas is fighting to stop the project. Arguing a lack of consultation, and drawing attention to the grave impacts that could be derived from the project, the local opposition is growing stronger while the company is facing potential financial troubles.

The European Union Parliament has recently agreed on a resolution on international oceans governance, which calls for a moratorium on seabed mining.

In an effort to push back against the plunder, almost 800,000 thousand people have called on the ISA and its member parties to agree to the moratorium.

While opposition is mounting, alternative economic models are gaining momentum and people are increasingly aware of what’s at stake, for the sake of the oceans, the planet and the people, it’s urgent we stand to prevent commercial deep sea mining, before it’s too late.

* Sebastian Losada is Oceans policy adviser for Greenpeace International, and Pierre Terras is an Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace International

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Environmentalists Tie Trump’s Hands on Deep-Sea Mining

Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A federal court settlement requires the government to assess the impact of strip-mining the ocean floor before issuing exploration permits to companies.

David Kirby | Take Part | 1 December 2016

Donald Trump is still seven weeks away from taking office, but when it comes to permitting the controversial practice of deep-sea mining, the incoming administration’s hands are already tied.

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it has settled a federal court lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, in a move that will compel federal officials to conduct in-depth assessments of the risks to wildlife and underwater ecosystems before issuing permits for the exploration of the ocean floor for rare-earth metals and minerals.

The settlement’s terms will be binding on the Trump Administration, said Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the environmental group. Trump’s campaign website does not mention deep-sea mining, although it does call for opening offshore leasing and eliminating all “wasteful and unnecessary regulation.”

“He wants to ramp up coal production and is not concerned about the impact of strip mining and mountaintop removal, so it makes me think he wouldn’t be afraid to strip-mine the ocean floor,” Jeffers said of the president elect.

The Trump transition team and NOAA did not respond to requests for comment.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government in 2015 over its extension of two exploratory permits for a Lockheed Martin subsidiary that wants to conduct deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, halfway between Mexico and Hawaii.

NOAA extended those permits without conducting the necessary environmental assessments required by federal law, the lawsuit alleged.

Deep-sea mining is still in the development phase worldwide, and no country or company has yet mined the ocean floor for the estimated billions of dollars’ worth of gold, nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, and other rare-earth metals and minerals resting up to a mile under the sea.

Improved extraction technologies and skyrocketing prices for these materials, fueled by the consumer electronics boom, have made seafloor mining increasingly attractive. Mining companies around the world now have exploration licenses on more than 930,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean floor.

But many scientists warn that deep-sea mining, and even exploration for potential sites, can damage marine ecosystems.

“A close analogy to deep sea mining, strip mining on land, has had many ill effects on wildlife and human health,” the lawsuit states. “Similarly, deep seabed mineral mining could disrupt marine communities throughout the ocean.”

“Because of the novelty of deep seabed mining and the potentially severe environmental effects, diligence in analyzing and processing licenses and permits is especially critical,” it continues.

Deep-sea mining scrapes minerals off the seafloor “like a bulldozer, which destroys seabed habitat,” the environmental group’s attorneys wrote. Mining machinery emits noise that can disturb or even harm marine mammals and churns up sediment plumes that smother seafloor organisms and release nutrients that produce toxic algae blooms. Waste released in the process can cloud water and reduce photosynthesis and productivity, and toxic heavy metals in sediment plumes readily enter the food chain.

Light and noise from mining ships, meanwhile, “can disrupt seabird behavior and result in exhaustion or death, and vessel collisions risk harming whales and other marine mammals,” the lawsuit says.

According to the settlement, NOAA agreed to “conduct an environmental analysis…if and when NOAA authorizes Lockheed Martin to conduct at-sea, phase II, exploration activities.”

The company is still in its first phase, which is limited to onshore analyses of seafloor data and global commodity prices.

“We wanted to make sure that any activities at sea required a thorough environmental review, and we weren’t clear that actually was going to happen,” Jeffers said.

Seafloor exploration has many of the same problems as actual mining, she said. “Exploration has a lesser degree of damage that would result from extraction. But they do have to take samples and disrupt the sediment.”

“I think it’s a good first step,” Jeffers said of the settlement. “Deep-sea mining is going to be, in the next 10 to 20 years, a very significant issue with serious environmental ramifications, and I think we need to start thinking now about whether we want to allow this type of activity to happen.”

“At the very least,” she added, “we need to ensure we do adequate environmental review so we know the type of damage that will result from strip-mining the ocean floor.”

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Deep Sea Mining a New Ocean Threat

(Image courtesy of NOAA)

Image courtesy of NOAA

Richard Steiner* | Huffington Post

Adding to concerns about the disastrous decline in ocean ecosystems, now there is another emerging threat – deep sea mining. While shallow water mining for sand, gold, tin, and diamonds has been conducted for decades, commercial deep sea mining has yet to occur anywhere. But that’s about to change.

Extensive deep sea mineral exploration is currently underway in international waters governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), under the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of many coastal nations.

There are currently three main types of deep sea mineral deposits of interest to industry and governments:

1. Polymetallic nodules (also called “manganese nodules”) are potato-sized metal nodules found on the abyssal plain from 4,000 m – 6,000 m deep. These nodules are rich in manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium, molybdenum, iron, and Rare Earth Elements. Nodules grow slowly over millions of years, to diameters from 5 cm – 50 cm, and host unique invertebrate communities. Currently, 13 national consortia operate exploration leases on 4.5 million km2 of the Clarion-Clipperton (Fracture) Zone (CCZ), between Baja and Hawaii. The U.S., as a non-party to UNCLOS and ISA, issued exploration leases on its own to Ocean Minerals Company (OMCO), a subsidiary of defense contractor Lockheed Martin, to explore for nodules in the CCZ. The only nodule deposits being seriously considered within a national EEZ at present are in the Cook Islands in South Pacific.

2. Seafloor Massive Sulphide (SMS) deposits are found beneath deep sea hydrothermal vents along the 67,000 km of volcanically active mid-ocean ridges and back arc basins, between 1,500 m – 5,000 m deep. These contain high-grade copper, gold, silver, zinc, and other trace metals. Deep sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems were first discovered in 1977 at the Galapagos Rift, and stunned the world of science, as these vent systems rely entirely on chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis – the first ever known. Over 300 deep sea vent systems have been discovered so far, and it is estimated that perhaps only 500 – 5,000 may exist in the world ocean, making this one of rarest ecosystems in Earth’s biosphere. China and Korea hold contracts to explore SMS deposits in international waters of the Indian Ocean, and Russia and France hold exploration leases on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Other SMS deposits being considered are in waters of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, Palau, Niue, Fiji, Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and New Zealand. The Nautilus Minerals “Solwara 1” project in PNG waters is fully permitted, the mining ship and equipment are being built, and mining is scheduled to begin in 2018. This would be the first commercial deep sea mining project in history.

3. Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts are found on summits and flanks of seamounts at 400 m – 4,000 m depth. There are some 10,000 seamounts in oceans rising at least 1,000 m above the seabed (and perhaps another 90,000 smaller seamounts). Many are in EEZs of central Pacific islands (Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Hawaii, Johnston Atoll), and in international waters of the tropical Pacific. Metal crusts form on shoulders of seamounts, rich in cobalt, nickel, copper, iron, manganese; rare metals such as tungsten, platinum, bismuth, tellurium, etc.; and Rare Earth Elements. Crusts grow slowly, 1 mm – 5 mm per million years, and can reach total thickness of up to 260 mm. Seamount crusts are currently being explored by China and Japan in international waters of the western tropical Pacific, but many feel actual mining of seamount crusts would be by far the most problematic and least feasible.

Marine phosphate (fertilizer) and methane hydrate (energy) resources found in shallower waters, 100 m – 500 m deep, are often discussed in context with deep sea minerals. Marine phosphate mining is in consideration off Namibia (currently under moratorium), New Zealand (the environmental permit was denied earlier this year, but the developer is considering reapplying next year), and off Baja Mexico, where Odyssey Marine has submitted its EIA for mining the Don Diego phosphate deposit in 70 m water depth, 12-25 miles offshore. Japan has successfully tested methane hydrate, or “fire ice,” extraction from its offshore waters.

But here’s the problem. The deep ocean, where mining is proposed, constitutes the largest and least understood biological habitat on Earth. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland world of extremes, extraordinary adaptions, bizarre organisms, beauty and mystery. The region is characterized by darkness (infused with sparkling bioluminescence), extreme pressure, cold temperatures, high biodiversity (perhaps millions of species, most yet to be identified), slow growth and reproductive rates, and high sensitivity to disturbance (low resilience). Given our poor understanding of deep sea ecosystems, growing industrial interest, rudimentary management, and insufficient protected areas, the risk of irreversible environmental damage here is real.

Environmental risks and impacts of deep sea mining would be enormous and unavoidable, including seabed habitat degradation over vast ocean areas, species extinctions, reduced habitat complexity, slow and uncertain recovery, suspended sediment plumes, toxic plumes from surface ore dewatering, pelagic ecosystem impacts, undersea noise, ore and oil spills in transport, and more.

Due to the global rarity of deep sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems, the impact of vent mining would be disproportionately high relative to terrestrial mining. Full-scale nodule mining on the abyssal plain would affect thousands of square miles of ocean floor, kill attached invertebrate communities, and create huge subsea sediment plumes that would flow and settle over thousands of square miles of seafloor. Such sedimentation would smother seabed habitat, reduce habitat complexity and biodiversity over vast areas, and post-mining recovery would be extremely slow. Mining of cobalt crusts on seamounts would cause enormous, possibly irreversible impacts to unique, productive seamount ecosystems.

Clearly, we need to avoid such ecological damage. Before any deep sea mining moves ahead, we would need much more extensive scientific research – species identification, community ecology, distribution, genetics, life histories, resettlement patterns, resilience to disturbance, and at least a 10-year continuous time series of observations to understand dynamics of proposed mining sites over-time. In addition, we need more robust management regimes at the ISA and in coastal nations, royalty-sharing and liability agreements, stakeholder engagement, and significant advancements in subsea technology. Until this is achieved, the only wise policy is a global moratorium on all deep sea mining.

seabed 2

Image courtesy of NOAA

The need for more deep sea Marine Protected Areas is paramount. New Zealand established its Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this year on over 620,000 km2 of the islands and submarine volcanoes northeast of the main islands; Cook Islands established a marine reserve on 1.1 million km2 (over half) of their EEZ; the U.S. established a 1.2 million km2 Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument; and the ISA established Areas of Particular Environmental Interest (APEIs) over about half (or about 2.3 million km2) of the area currently under lease in the CCZ. This is a good start, but still insufficient.

Industry and governments recognize the huge challenges in mining the deep ocean, but are resolved to move forward anyway. As justification, they invoke the “peak minerals” argument, depletion of land-based minerals, and a projected increase in mineral demand in the world economy.

But mining proponents habitually avoid discussing the opportunity to reduce mineral demand by increasing the efficiency of metal use in the global economy, cradle-to-cradle design, recycling, and landfill mining. To build a sustainable economy, we will have to break the “economy of waste” – mining raw minerals, using them once or twice, discarding them, and continuing the demand for mining raw minerals. Surely at some point, with smart renewable metal use, we will have enough minerals already up into the global economy and won’t need to keep digging holes for more. The sooner we get there, the better.

The Nautilus Minerals “Solwara 1” vent/SMS mining project in PNG waters will likely be the first deep sea mining project, with others following elsewhere in PNG, Tonga, and Fiji. Others projects to watch in national waters include Odyssey’s Don Diego phosphate mining project off Baja, and manganese nodule mining in the Cook Islands. Mining on the international seabed is likely 5-10 years off, but there is intense political pressure to do so.

This emerging industry would result in serious impacts to our oceans, so it is critical for civil society to engage now, in the early stages of exploration and development. It would be truly unfortunate if we allow the same industrial paradigm that destroyed much of the terrestrial ecosystems of our home planet to do the same in the deep sea. It is time to change this model.

This is a very big deal, and we need to pay close attention. Groups such as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, MiningWatch Canada, Greenpeace, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity are doing great work on the issue. The future of our oceans, and thus our planet, may depend on their success.

* Professor and conservation biologist, Oasis Earth (www.oasis-earth.com)

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Threat from mining’s race to the ocean floor?

ocean

Investopedia

Although Lockheed Martin was granted a mining license to explore the ocean depths in 2013, and Nautilus Minerals has had underwater mining rights near Papua New Guinea for 15 years, it was the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) grant last week of a mining and exploration contract to the government-owned China Minmetals for a 73,000 square kilometer tract in the Pacific Ocean that has many concerned that the undersea pursuit of minerals will irreparably damage the ocean floor.

Land-based miners have suffered a reversal of fortunes as the industry’s once lucrative projects turn uneconomical. From environmental concerns to clashes over historical and religious rights, miners have seen projects that had been on the fast track end up on ice. Whether it has been gold, copper, coal, or other ores and minerals, company valuations have fallen significantly over the past year, and others still have gone bankrupt.

The promise ocean floor mining holds is that there are vast riches for the taking. The Clarion-Clipperton basin, for example, is estimated to potentially yield more than 27 billion tonnes of valuable ores, including 290 million tonnes of copper and 340 million tonnes of nickel. Some studies have suggested undersea deposits could yield as much as $8 billion worth of gold, copper, zinc, and silver.

Also, because they have been brought up to the ocean floor by undersea volcanic activity and geothermal vents, it could be easier than land-based mining to extract them. Until now, those minerals had been considered too difficult and risky to pursue, but technological advances have renewed interest in the possibility, and it is believed mining could start within five years.

No doubt that is part of the reason the Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May for having issued the permits to the Lockheed Martin subsidiary OMCO Seabed Exploration. While the defense contractor has called the dive beneath the waves “an ecologically sound method for meeting the growing global demand for precious metals, as well as supporting economic growth,” environmental groups view it as an intolerable risk that threatens “underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts.”

With more than two dozen permits issued worldwide by the ISA, the effort to stop Lockheed Martin is like putting a finger in the dike, while new cracks emerge elsewhere.

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Deep-sea mining looms on horizon as UN body issues contracts

ocean coral indonesia

In this April 30, 2009 file photo, coral reefs grow in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold and the rare-earth elements vital in manufacturing smartphones and other high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the dark seafloor thousands of meters (yards) beneath the waves. The Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority has issued 27 separate 15-year contracts that allow for mineral prospecting on over 1 million square kilometers (over 390,000 sq. miles) of seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. | Dita Alangkara, File AP Photo

David McFadden | Associated Press

The deep oceans span more than half the globe and their frigid depths have long been known to contain vast, untapped deposits of prized minerals. These treasures of the abyss, however, have always been out of reach to miners.

But now, the era of deep seabed mining appears to be dawning fueled by technological advances in robotics and dwindling land-based deposits. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold and the rare-earth elements vital in manufacturing smartphones and other high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the dark seafloor thousands of meters (yards) beneath the waves.

With authorities at the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority issuing exploration contracts, alarmed conservationists are warning that the deep ocean’s fragile biodiversity must be protected and not nearly enough is known about the risks of extracting minerals from seabeds.

“The pace of activity has increased dramatically over the last five years,” said Michael Lodge, deputy secretary-general of the obscure U.N. body in Kingston that acts as a global steward of the deep seafloor and is tasked with regulating this new mining frontier. “We’re seeing the private sector invest in a big way.”

The U.N. agency, known by its initials ISA, presides over seabed outside the exclusive territorial waters of individual countries. So far, it has issued 27 exploration contracts, the large majority of them since 2011. The 15-year contracts allow for mineral prospecting on over 1 million square kilometers (over 390,000 sq. miles) of seabed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Governments and private companies have been moving so rapidly to stake claims and assess deposits that insiders forecast that commercial deep-sea mining could start within the next five years using robotic collectors equipped with cameras and sonar sensors along with pipe systems that can siphon crushed minerals to ships.

During a gathering this month in Jamaica of representatives from nearly 170 member states, ISA has started drafting a framework to regulate commercial exploitation of seafloor metals and minerals. The session ended Friday.

A group of international scientists, in a July 9 article in the journal Science, urged ISA to temporarily halt authorization of new mining contracts until networks of “marine protected areas” are established around areas targeted for mining.

“We owe it to future generations to ensure that we think before we act and gain a thorough understanding of the potential impacts of mining in the deep sea before any mining is permitted,” said Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which sent observers to ISA’s 21st session in Kingston.

But despite the warnings, in recent days ISA authorized its latest exploration contract, a 72,745 square kilometer (28,087 sq. mile) permit in the Pacific to China Minmetals Corp., sponsored by Beijing. China now has the most permits from the U.N. body with four.

ISA was launched in 1994 and operates under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The only major maritime power that has not ratified the convention is the United States, where lawmakers have argued it could impinge on U.S. economic and military sovereignty. The Department of the Interior has granted exploration licenses in the Pacific to Lockheed Martin Corp., a U.S. company that has also partnered with the United Kingdom, an ISA member, by setting up a deep-sea mining subsidiary there.

So far, most of ISA’s contracts have been issued for the deep abyssal plains of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a sprawling area of the Pacific Ocean off Mexico and the U.S. At depths of 4,000 to 6,000 meters, it is known to be rich in nodules containing copper, cobalt, manganese and significant concentrations of rare-earth elements. As part of an environmental plan, ISA has set aside nine areas in this zone, prohibiting them to contractors.

Other coveted exploration areas contain copper-rich sulphides formed around hydrothermal vents and black cobalt crusts created along the slopes of seamounts and volcanic mountain ranges. These biologically complex areas are found in the Western Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. ISA literature estimates that one site could provide up to 25 percent of the annual global market for cobalt.

“The concentrations of minerals that you find in the seabed are very much richer than what’s left on land. So demand is only going to increase,” Lodge said.

Douglas McCauley, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said seabed mining and other industrial activities like ocean-based power generation and farming indicates that mankind is on the cusp of launching a “marine industrial revolution.”

Current proposals for the oceans over the next several decades “look uncomfortably similar to what we did to land in the 1700s and 1800s,” he said, adding that the onset of the land-based industrialization was associated with a spike in animal extinction rates.

But there are basic things humanity can do to approach seabed mining intelligently, he said. First, learn what biodiversity is down there before we mine. Second, go slowly on exploitation contracts and study the impacts of this mining as it is happening. Third, set up systems of protected areas before, not after, mining starts.

“The terrestrial industrial revolution happened before we had the tools to manage goals for development and goals for sustaining biodiversity. You can’t really blame people in the 1700s for the damage they did to the environment…” he said. “But we certainly are to blame if we don’t do seabed mining properly.”

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